A wave of pharmacy robberies is sweeping the United States as addicts and dealers turn to violence to feed the nation’s growing hunger for narcotic painkillers.
Criminals are holding pharmacists at gunpoint and escaping with thousands of powerfully addictive pills that can sell for as much as US$80 ($100) apiece on the street.
In one of the most shocking crimes, a robber walked into a neighbourhood drugstore on New York’s Long Island last week and shot dead the pharmacist, a teenage store clerk and two customers before leaving with a backpack full of pills containing hydrocodone.
“It’s an epidemic,” said Michael Fox, a pharmacist on New York’s Staten Island who has been held up twice in the last year. “These people are depraved. They’ll kill you.”
Armed robberies at pharmacies rose 81 per cent between 2006 and 2010, from 380 to 686, the US Drug Enforcement Administration says. The number of pills stolen went from 706,000 to 1.3 million. Thieves are overwhelmingly taking oxycodone painkillers like OxyContin or Roxicodone, or hydrocodone-based painkillers like Vicodin and Norco. Both narcotics are highly addictive.
In New York state, the number of armed robberies rose from two in 2006 to 28 in 2010. In Florida, they increased nearly six-fold, from 11 to 65. California saw 61 robberies in 2010, Indiana had 45 and Tennessee had 38.
Most robbers don’t hurt anyone, but authorities are worried the risk of bloodshed is increasing as assaults multiply.
Last September, a clerk was fatally shot in the chest and a pregnant woman wounded in the foot in a shootout between a robber and an armed employee at a pharmacy in Sacramento, California. In April, a gunman killed a pharmacist in Trenton, New Jersey, before stealing US$10,000 in pills.
“Drug addicts are always seeking ways to get their drugs,” DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said. “Whenever there’s an increase in a problem, you’ll see it manifested in ways like this.”
Prescription painkillers are now the second most abused drugs after marijuana, with 7 million Americans using them illegally in the past month, the US Department of Health and Human Services says.
The number of patients treated in emergency rooms for prescription drug overdoses more than doubled between 2004 and 2008, from 144,644 to 305,885.
Drug dealers may be turning to violence as authorities crack down on other ways of getting painkillers, Carreno said. Many states have introduced computer systems to prevent “doctor-shopping” by addicts, and federal investigations have shut down several shady internet pharmacies.
Prosecutors say David Laffer, 33, walked into the Long Island drugstore last Monday and opened fire without warning.
“He did not announce a robbery,” Assistant District Attorney John Collins said. “He simply shot first after engaging the pharmacist in conversation.”
Laffer shot 45-year-old pharmacist Raymond Ferguson once in the abdomen, then killed 17-year-old store clerk Jennifer Mejia before pumping two more shots into Ferguson, Collins said. Then he started pulling Norco and other hydrocodone drugs off the shelves, Collins said.
When customers Bryon Sheffield, 71, and Jamie Taccetta, 33, walked into the store, Laffer sneaked up behind them and shot them in the back of the head, Collins said.
Laffer is a former Army private who once worked as an intelligence analyst. He had recently lost his job as a warehouse worker.
He and his wife, Melinda Brady, were high when they were arrested on Thursday at their home about 2.5km from the pharmacy, police said.
Brady was charged with driving the getaway car; both have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.
Brady had said she had been taking different painkillers in the year before their January 2009 wedding because of several surgeries on her mouth. She said it was taking a toll on her relationships.
It’s a familiar pattern, said Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, which advocates for more cautious use of narcotic painkillers.
Many patients get addicted while taking a legitimate prescription and turn to crime after they lose their jobs and the insurance coverage that comes with them, he said.
“People with addiction who could be perfectly good people will do all sorts of horrible things to maintain their supply,” Kolodny said.
Like Laffer, most pharmacy robbers are white males, said Richard Conklin, manager of RxPatrol.com, a website that tracks robberies. However, they come from all backgrounds and ages, he said.
Last month a 51-year-old man in a suit and tie approached a pharmacy counter in Idaho and told the clerk he had something in his briefcase that he could “light the place up with” if the store didn’t give him OxyContin. He left with hundreds of pills.
The National Community of Pharmacists’ Association, which represents 23,000 independent drugstores, is distributing height charts to help employees record the height of robbers as they flee stores.
The Walgreens pharmacy chain is experimenting with medicine safes that delay several minutes before opening, in hopes that robbers won’t have the patience to wait.
Some pharmacies are even considering bullet-proof windows like those in many banks.